A word about books. Writing them, selling them. It's a good moment while everyone in the business is off doing the business at Frankfurt. When they get back the Booker prize will be announced.
The Booker was set up by a publisher as a way of publicising what people used to call Literary Fiction, which are books that aren't best sellers. Called these days, mid-list. Publishers love it. Six books a year get free publicity and the publishers make at least as much as the author without having to spend any money. And money, rather than quality of writing is of the greatest interest.
If one book is a winner, the other five are, by definition, losers. Don't ask what the books that never made it to the short list are. What a great idea. Writers made or broken by a prize-giving committee. Books in knockout competition with each other. Books that are chosen by a committee who must settle in the end for the book that everyone least disagrees about. Writers sit with their publicists at a televised dinner and wait until coffee to be told which of them has won, and, of course, which of them have lost. Isn't this a great way to respect and get the best literature?
I always refused to let my books be submitted for prizes. I don't want to be in competition with other writers. I don't want to write with winner or loser hanging over my head. I don't want my publishers to feel that they don't have to make any further effort to get my book into bookshops. I don't want to be part of a race. I want to write books. I'd like people to read them, but not at any cost. Not at the cost of public humiliation - which is how I feel about both losing and winning. A few years ago it was made clear to me that if I wanted to go on being published I had to let them enter my books for prizes. It has become that important.
I was shortlisted for a non-fiction prize which was sponsored by Thomas Cook and The Daily Telegraph. I got an email from the Travel Editor saying that each of the short-listed authors were writing a 100 word piece about travelling to be published side by side with thumbnail photos. I said I didn't have anything to say in 100 words. That it wasn't writing. If I didn't participate, I was told, it would count against me with the judges. The space where I should be would be left blank and people would draw their own conclusions. The space was, of course, left blank. The world failed to come to an end. But if folk sign up for a competition, they're going to get treated like competitors.
It's all to do with the ubiquity of Markets. Everything, I've been told by a young writer who'd been to the UEA writing club (sorry school) and published one book, has to be judged by its market value. Books too. If it doesn't sell, it's not what's wanted. I don't know how anyone other than an accountant (and a illiterate accountant at that) could believe that. In any case, publishers have to pay to get books on to bookshop tables and prefer to spend their marketing money on surefire bestsellers, so how are people to see new books that don't have decent marketing budgets? Remember browsing? When you wandered around a bookshop and found out what had been published that month by picking up the books on the table and looking at them? Bookshops were pleased to display interesting as well as popular fiction. And remember when writing mattered enough to be regarded as worth subsidising through best sellers rather than racking up profits because shareholders had to have their dividends? Perhaps you don't. Anyway, once publishers were part of the literary world rather than subsidiaries of vast money making concerns. That meant that writers didn't get vast advances, but they were encouraged to work at their craft and given time to develop. I don't think that is happening very much now. Young writers and established writers get dumped when their sales figures drop or don't live up to expectations.
So in the world of books as well as everywhere else, capitalism has triumphed. And don't believe what they say about all worthwhile writers seeing the light of day. People who are not deeply concerned with good writing don't necessarily recognise it, or simply reject it as unsellable. They're looking for something else. And that's what they find, and what readers get.